LIFE

Amid economic crisis, a silver lining for Greek filmmakers

By John Hadoulis

The economic crisis that has devastated Greece has also spurred the country's filmmakers onto a prize-winning renaissance in a rare success story from the eurozone nation.

The same recession that brought misery to tens of thousands of families since 2009 has fueled demand for tales out of Greece -- prompting the nation's filmmakers not only to adapt to the new economic realities but also rack up awards in the process.

Last year, 36-year-old Alexandros Avranas picked up a best director prize at the Venice Film Festival with 'Miss Violence', a movie about a girl's hushed-up suicide that also won a best actor award.

Two years earlier, 'Dogtooth' by 41-year-old Yorgos Lanthimos -- a film about a dysfunctional Greek family -- was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, the first such accolade for a Greek film in over 30 years.

"The crisis has put the spotlight on Greece, and this has spurred Greek filmmakers," said Gregory Karantinakis, general manager of the Greek Film Centre, the state-supervised body supporting Greek cinema.

A flood of international media coverage of anti-austerity protests, many of them violent, has paradoxically helped pique interest.

"People outside Greece have sought to discover what is happening in the country," he said.

"Dogtooth" director Lanthimos also won best screenplay at Venice in 2011 with 'Alps' -- a movie about an underground organisation that helps mourners by impersonating the deceased.

He is now directing his first English-language feature, 'Lobster', starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. The film is a dystopian love drama set in the future.

Overall, Greek cinema is riding a wave of success unseen since the European glory days of director Theo Angelopoulos in the 1990's.

"The crisis has helped in an unexpected way. It has brought together very creative people and it has compelled them to work together," says George Corraface, one of Greece's best-known international actors with a 30-year career in Europe and the United States.

"People do amazing work with very little money, and this has a huge effect. It creates a buzz all over festivals," he told AFP.

Turmoil an inspiration

Social turmoil has traditionally inspired artistic expression, said Karantinakis.

In Greece, the economy has shrunk by a quarter and unemployment shot up to over 27 percent. The youth have been particularly hard-hit, with more than one in two without a job.

"The younger generation of filmmakers feels the need to say things ...and urgently so," says Yorgos Zois, an award-winning short film director now preparing his first feature movie.

"There are a lot of things simmering under the surface in Greek society -- existential, economic -- so it is urgent for people to take a stand," adds the 33-year-old, who originally studied applied math and physics.

But while a source of inspiration, the crisis, unsurprisingly, has also has ravaged finances.

Before all fell apart, the industry relied on state funding from the Greek Film Centre (GFC), and ERT, the state broadcaster.

But over the past five years, the GFC's funding has fallen by 35 percent while domestic ticket sales -- another key money source -- are down 45 percent.

And last year, the government axed ERT.

The shutdown was designed to trim the state payroll -- one of Greece's obligations under its multi-billion EU-IMF bailout -- by more than 2,000 jobs.

A downsized state broadcaster was set up to replace ERT, but in the interim, scores of productions including documentaries and short films were crippled for lack of funding.

This acted as a wake-up call to the industry, unlike the past when many were content to wait for the next state payout.

"Before the crisis, Greek filmmakers wanted 300-500,000 euros ($200,000-$360,000) to make a movie," said an industry source who declined to be named.

"Now they do it with 100,000 euros," he said, adding that movie production is now better targeted too.

"When the money was flowing, 15 Greek movies would be made in one year but only two would be shown in cinemas. The rest would never see the light of day, and some of their creators didn't even care," the source said.

With less domestic funding, Greek filmmakers have been searching for new contacts and sponsors abroad.

Zois said most films in Greece are now done on a shoestring budget, or are European co-productions.

And Greek directors have learned they need to move audiences if they want to surmount problem of language, a barrier which traditionally limited distribution of Greek-language films.

"There's very little room for Greek films," said Corraface.

"So it's necessary to make films that are a bit shocking, that wake people up. And I think (Greeks have caught onto that)," he added. [AFP]

Online